Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year Over

Today I drove Nick, Kate, Thomas and A into the Centro Historico. It's so rare that I get to drive in the centre of town and today is easy - very quiet. But being New Year's Eve, half the stuff we wanted to see was open (the Zocalo of course and San Ildefonso and Franz Meyer museums) and half closed (Museo Mural Diego Rivera and our fave rooftop restaurant El Major). All in all, however, a fun day out.
In the evening Sam, Annette and Zoe returned from Tulum so we had quite a crowd to bring in the new year with another bumper game of charades. Nice to be surrounded by friends & family - normally New Year's a bit of an anticlimax.
So, another year over. Where will we be a year from now?  

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Welcome the Augers

One set of visitors depart for Tulum, another set - Nick, Kate & Thomas - arrive this evening. Finally we get a chance to be hosts after staying with them every summer for what must be 15 years.  

Saturday, December 26, 2015

London's Pirate Pioneers

Been reading a great book, London's Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch, published earlier this year. Growing up, pirate radio rather passed me by. I was too young to experience the likes of Radio Caroline & co, transmitting from rusty tubs in the North Sea in the mid-60s ('celebrated' in the dreadful film, The Ship That Rocked a few years ago), and was completely unaware of onshore stations like Radio Jackie and Invicta who broadcast mainly on sundays and public holidays in the 70s. 
It was only in the 80s that I became aware of a few stations like Alice's Restaurant, JFM, Horizon and Kiss FM, though to be honest they didn't really play the music I was into at the time. 
But reading about it all now brought back a kind of retrospective excitement: the guys (and it was mainly guys) rigging up aerials on the rooftops of council blocks or sometimes in woodlands (good tree-climbers were prized); the dodgy transmitters and basic bedroom studios; the Home Office raids… Funny to learn that Gilles Peterson started off on Civic Radio aged just 14, and even comedian Keith Allen had a go. 
Come the new decade, many stations like Kiss FM went legit, although the rave scene attracted its fare share of illegal air time. In any case, the author (who was heavily involved in the scene at the time and edited a magazine about it) lost interest and the book staggers to a halt in 1990. Of course, pirate radio is still alive with around 150 stations currently operating in Britain, the line's share still in London, but with internet stations it is a different animal now. 
I'd like to have learned more about the scene elsewhere in Britain, but that's another book. Anyway, a thorough account of the early days; and I believe there was an accompanying exhibition at London's ICA too.    

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Crib and a Half

Stockings, pancakes, a mass in Spanish (and the crib to end all cribs - a 50ft panorama with menagerie, flashing lights and waterfall), presents, The Miracle on 34th Street, turkey, booze, Cluedo, charades, more booze, and Elf. What more could you want?

Thursday, December 24, 2015


Mexico City doesn't skimp on the decorations. Antara shopping centre looks like Regent Street, complete with Hamley's toy shop - the first in the Americas. It even blows fake snow. Very tempted to buy I Believe in Fairy Tiles socks but just about refrained.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


agave plant
Sam and I drank very potent mezcal this evening. It came in a label-less, worm-less bottle - a gift from my colleague Jimena, whose family home-brews it outside Mexico City somewhere. The first sensation was fairly nondescript, a bit like vodka, but after a few seconds came an incredibly smokey, woody aftertaste. It's this that differentiates it from the more popular tequila. Both are made from agave plants but 99% is tequila, made from the blue agave. To merit the name, mezcal must be made in only seven of Mexico's thirty states, including Oaxaca in the south, often considered its home. See interesting, 4-minute Guardian video here

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Musical Stairs

In our local Metro station, Polanco, there's a black and white staircase which looks like a piano keyboard. And at certain times of the day, it is a piano keyboard. Tread on a step and it trips an infra-red light which triggers a note. Here's Sam walking down, and you can hear it play here.

Monday, December 21, 2015

RIP Jimmy Hill

As a young football fan, I grew up with Jimmy Hill and his incredible chin. But he was so much more than just the presenter of Match Of The Day. Here's a few things he'll be remembered for (well, maybe not the first):
  • During the Second World War, he was evacuated to my old school, Chichester High
  • He started his playing career at Brentford FC 1949-52, but made his name at Fulham until retiring in 1961, aged 33
  • In 1957 he became Chairman of the PFA and got the £20 a week maximum wage scrapped
  • In 1961 he became manager of Coventry City and by '67 had guided them from the Third to First Division (and later became their Chairman)
  • His broadcasting career started in 1968, becoming Head of Sport at LWT, covering the 1970 World Cup and introducing the first panel of football pundits
  • He then switched to BBC and presented Match Of The Day from 1973-88
  • He was a real innovator: introducing pre-match entertainment to encourage fans to get to matches early and the first colour match programme as well as commissioning the first all-seater stadium (Coventry's Highfield Road)
  • In a match between Arsenal and Liverpool in 1972, he came to the rescue when the linesman pulled a muscle and was unable to continue. Hill donned a tracksuit and ran the line for the rest of the match.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Torre Latinoamericana

Having visitors is great in more ways than one. It gets you out of the house and out into the city. And there's enough stuff in Mexico City to not be repeating yourself each time. So today, I finally got to go up the Torre Latinoamericana, the somewhat dated, though still classic, skyscraper in the middle of town. 
Built in 1956 it was, at 44 storeys, the tallest building in Mexico at the time. The view from the top is pretty amazing and there's a decent museum documenting its construction. Perhaps its most important attribute is that it was built on soft, seismic-prone foundations but survived the great 1985 Mexico City earthquake completely unscathed.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fine Art Reversed

Went to the Soumaya Museum today. It has no perpendicular walls, so paintings are hung in the middle of the gallery in a way that you can see both their fronts and backs. The backs make an interesting exhibition in their own right: a mess of artists' notes, scrawled numbers, previous venues, shipping information and barcodes.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Close of a Chapter

There have been coal mines in Britain since the industrial revolution and for 200 years they powered the economy. In the 1950s there were over 1,300 deep coal mines. Today, in Kellingley in Yorkshire, the last one closed. End of an era.
On a more cheery note, today is my last day of work ahead of a two-and-a-half week break. And tonight Sam, Annette and Zoe arrive, the first of two lots of visitors. Great to see them.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Underground Art

Today the last UKMX event took place… underground, in Polanco Metro station. It's an exhibition of 23 works by nine young British artists produced by the London-based Mexican curator and gallery owner, Javier Calderon, who also curated the Immersive Frames video-art exhibition across town. The latter features more established artists, but this one is an interesting experiment, using some big glass cabinets near the ticket lobby with a potential audience of 25,000 a day. It's on for three months, so do the maths! 
Anyway, we met Jorge Gavino, Director of Mexico City's Metro and discussed other opportunities. There's another station, San Lazaro, which is big enough to host concerts with full-scale orchestras. There's something very appealing about taking cart out out traditional venues and into the public realm. Let's see…

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A New Chapter

Day One of being in charge. As from today, and for the following six months or so, I am Acting Director, British Council Mexico. On the one hand it feels totally natural: I've been here for 16 months and know the operation and most people pretty well. On the other hand, it's quite a responsibility, covering everything: the teaching and exams business, education, arts, HR, finance, all the representational stuff and dealing with the Americas and London.  But it's a great opportunity to see if I like - and can be any good at - being a Country Director . 
First thing's first. Move from the 'UKMX hub' on the 3rd floor down to the 2nd floor. Need to make myself more visible and get to know the parts of the operation which up until now I've not had to engage with so much. 
Life is full of challenges.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

So Here It Is…(Not)

If it's mid-December then you can be sure there's a school Christmas concert lurking. Cue: the combined secondary's 100-strong orchestra and choir with our A in the latter. Quite a mixed programme: Bing's 'White Christmas' of course, a couple of songs from The Sound of Music, Florence + The Machine's 'Breath of Life' for some reason, a complete absence of Slade, Wizzard or Wham!. All good stuff, and has set us in the mood.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Farewell Lena

This evening we bade a formal farewell to Lena, my boss. After four years as Director, British Council Mexico, she's returning to the UK. It was a nice send-off with about 50 key contacts. Touching speech, box of tissues in hand, props more than anything, but still... Hope when it's my turn I'm as composed.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sporty Intentions

The Changing Rooms, yesterday
In an effort to get vaguely fit and out into the open air, we have joined a sports club. It sounds grand - the Reforma Athletic Club - and I suppose it is. It certainly has an interesting history. Founded by an Englishman Thomas Phillips in 1894, it gave birth to Mexico's first football club, Reforma AC, which led to the Mexican Football League being set up eight years later. Even now, 121 years later, it has the air of a country club with photographs of British royalty, Big Ben and Stonehenge lining the walls. But it's run by Mexicans and there are very few Brits as members. Now all we have to do is make the effort and make sure we get our money's worth.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A MacDonalds and Starbucks Free Zone: the Revolution Continues

A final morning wandering Old Havana. The National Museum of Revolution is disappointingly poor with amateur, dusty panels attempting to bring events to life, and failing. The diorama of Che emerging from the Cuban jungle was about as good as it got. Oh, and - for me - discovering that Che met the Castro brothers in Mexico City and that was where, in 1955, most of the revolutionary planning took place. By the end of the year, eighty two of them took a leaky boat to Cuba and, after three years of guerrilla fighting, ousted Batista and established a Marxist-Leninist government (not a Communist one, as Fidel Castro pointed out to American journalists at the time). 
Since then, apart from the flurry of big-time tension in the early 60s, Cuba effectively went into a kind of suspension. Che was assassinated in Bolivia while Fidel Castro remained at the top seemingly in perpetuity. He messed around in Africa. People got poor. Millions left. He stepped down in 2008. His brother took over and introduced a few reforms. Tourism increased and it became easier to get a passport. But it's still in a self-imposed time-warp. Hardly any internet and - for ill or good - the complete absence of MacDonalds and Starbucks. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Old Havana

Old Town
Capitolio Nacional
A final morning of meetings before we disperse: some for flights home, while others decide to stay on a day or two. I'm in the latter camp and transferred to a small hotel in the old town before spending the afternoon wandering the streets. 
Much of the old town is narrow streets and decaying buildings but full of character. It's being slowly 'done up' (a UNESCO heritage site since 1982) but the emphasis is on slowly, which in many ways is a good thing. No quick-fix Disneyfication here. 
Just to the west is the grander, more open town centre dominated by the Capitolio Nacional. Built in the 1920s, it was modelled on the Capitol in Washington DC (and is apparently an inch higher) and used to be the home of the Cuban government. But it was deemed too 'American' for the Castro regime so the government moved out & has struggled to find appropriate tenants ever since.
Flitted between the two really. Spent a couple of hours in the voluminous National Museum of Cuban Art, had a coffee in Ambos Mundos, the hotel where Hemingway wrote several stories while running up a huge bar tab, viewed the city from a wonderful rooftop camera obscura in Plaza Vieja, and ended the evening in little retro-trash cafe just a block behind the Capitolio, but it might as well have been another world. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Architecture and Morality (2)

Russian Embassy
Edificio Bacardi
You could say the architecture here divides into pre- and post-1960. You'd be wrong but let's say it anyway. The pre- is generally Spanish colonial, American art deco and much of it in an advance state of decay. The post- is generally Soviet-style monolithic and fascinatingly ugly. The Russian Embassy, for example, built in the 80s, is quite possibly the ugliest, most sinister building I've ever seen. The Edificio Bacardi on the other hand, is one of the best examples of art deco anywhere in the world.      
After some serious cud-chewing sessions for the major part of the day, we headed off to the Teatro Nacional de Cuba (opened in 1979 and now seriously stained) to see a special in-rehearsal performance by Danca Contemporanea de Cuba. I think it was called Inversion ('Reversal') and certainly it mixed up genders with guys in skirts and girls in trousers. It was brilliant, not gimmicky in the slightest. Nothing too abstract, experimental or clever-clever, just fantastic dance moves set to pulsating music.  
Talking of which, a few of us then went on to a 'casa de musica' to sample Cuba's most famous export. Of course there have been many famous Cuban musicians over the years (Gloria Estefan was born in Havana but given her father was a bodyguard to Batista they were one of the first families to flee to Miami), but it took until the late '90s for Cuban music to really get international recognition, and a British producer, Nick Gold, and an American guitarist, Ry Cooder, to make it happen. The pair had originally intended to record a world music collaboration between Malian and Cuban musicians but the former couldn't get visas so it became all Cuba only project and thus, Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon was born. 
I wondered whether the original club still existed. It doesn't. In fact, no-one can really agree on where it was (it closed in the 1940s). But the one we went to was fine, packed and probably typical of the scene here. No oldies though - it was a young crowd.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Cuba and its Cars

Habana, Cuba. Have always wanted to come here and it's an interesting time to do so. Obama met Raul Castro last April (the first US-Cuban leaders meeting for half a century) and the US Embassy re-opened in August (again, after a 50 year gap, in-between which their interests had been represented by the Swiss). But it's still a 'Communist' country and although nowhere near as weird & isolated as North Korea, has not gone down the free market route in quite the way China has done. 
Still, there's tourism, some entrepreneurism here and there, a UNESCO heritage old town, great music and of course those fabulous American vintage cars. They are everywhere, all dating from the 50s. Buicks, Chevrolets, Fords, Pontiacs - mostly in tip-top condition, lovingly maintained by a thriving mini-industry of dedicated mechanics. They are truly things of wonder and every taxi ride opportunity that came along was in a 50s dream car as opposed to the slightly less ancient and utterly dull Ladas or the brand new Toyotas which are beginning to establish themselves. There's something about those huge wide plastic covered seats, the steering-wheel gear-stick, the massive headlights and acres of chrome, and just the sheer tank-like bulk of them. Cruising along the Malecon esplanade in a 1958 Chevrolet convertible is sheer Hollywood. (I'm trying to imagine what it would be like if the same thing had happened in Britain. Somehow Morris Minors, Ford Populars and Standard Vanguards aren't quite the same). 
Anyway, here to work and work we did. Colleagues from across the Americas, and some from the UK, planning programmes for 2016. All good, interesting, useful stuff. 
In the evening we visited a fairly new art space, Fabrica de Arte Cubano or FAC for short - a very cool gallery-cum-performance space with an excellent restaurant and two bars. Almost inevitably it's housed in a former factory complete with huge chimney.
One drawback - or advantage, depending on your point of view - is the almost complete lack of internet access here. The hotel has a business centre in which, for a cost, you can just about get online, and I was able to get a package for my phone before I left Mexico but it ran out after day one. After a while, though, it was quite liberating. And soon I managed to do what I never do back 'home': put my phone away and, for hours at a time, ignore it. Actually, not true, for a new obsession took over. Taking endless photographs of cars. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Straight to the Immigration Office to renew my work visa, then a penultimate (and celebratory) UKMX board meeting, office stuff and then off to join our annual Americas arts meeting… in Habana, Cuba. Not great timing frankly, and very tired... but, hey, how exciting is that?

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Day After

Back to reality. Pack up, start dismantling the pavilion, flights back to Mexico City and reunited with family - if only for one night.  That was quite some project. I think we're going to need counselling to get over it.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

FIL Finale

Our wonderful volunteers
An emotional last day, with a closing press conference & ceremony in the morning, more talks, goodbyes to most of our Embassy colleagues, a mad dash to catch one film (The Goob) of the nine I've otherwise missed, a modest party for our 40+ volunteers and an amazing final concert. 
Jazz Jamaica
Reaction to the programme has been excellent. FIL's President, Raul Padilla, went on record as saying that the UK Pavilion "was the best they've had in their 29-year history" and ForoFIL's producer, Ana Teresa Ramirez, said that our performing arts programme was likewise the best they'd had. They also had the most visitors ever: 792,000. So we're pleased. Exhausted. But very pleased.
The positive vibes carried over into the final concert. We went for Jazz Jamaica, and it was just the right choice. I think the size of the crowd - at around 4,000, the largest of the nine days - and the final night good vibe took them by surprise. But they delivered. Goodtime ska-cum-reggae which got everyone dancing (Lots of videos posted on YouTube). Could have gone on for hours but ultimately it had to end. Although they hung around afterwards for an hour talking with fans while Ben Burrell playing impromptu trombone solos. It may have been hyperbole or the tequila or emotions running high, but band leader Gary Crosby said: "It there's one gig I'll remember in my life, it'll be this one"
An amazing last night.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Sleeping Souls

Frank Turner (photo Jimena Santoyo)
Getting near the end now. Thee are talks about running, a poetry salon with Andrew Motion, a panel about underworlds, another on nature and - my favourite (another science one funnily enough) - a talk about gravity by Stuart Clark. There was also a lunch with the outgoing Guests of Honour (us) and the 2016 incoming ones (a consortium of Latin American countries). 
In between it's a lot of running around: stocking up the information desk; finding a toilet without queues for a writer with a sprained ankle five minutes before she's due to give a talk; closing the second floor ramp when the visitor numbers get too much; arranging interviews; grabbing a coffee; and constant WhatsApping.
The evening's show was Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. Not really my kind of music - folk-punk - but there're one of the hardest-working bands around (gig number 1,798, of which 160 this year alone) and I've got to say they gave absolutely everything, a fantastic show. Turner himself is quite a character: super-friendly, bursting with energy, really genuine and utterly professional. He's known for his audience engagement, and rightly so. From the off, he had them in the palm of his hand, bantering constantly, sang a song in Spanish, and even crowd-surfed towards the end. Afterwards he signed autographs for over an hour. Me, I retired to our hotel round the corner and collapsed.

Friday, December 4, 2015


Jason Swinscoe
More talks, more everything... Inua Ellams's urban fairytales, a short Shakespeare interpretation by Ofelia Medina, a panel on contemporary feminism, another on LGBT, scientists as role models (and what they can gain from literature), Celtic crime etc. Meanwhile the film festival continues across town though hardly any of us have been able to get to see any of it. A pity, as tonight Hitchcock's The Lodger is being screened with a live local band.
Cinematic Orchestra
The big challenge facing us today, though, was the fact that Cinematic Orchestra's baggage was stuck in Dallas. Clothes, customised keyboards, effects pedals, the lot. There was some doubt whether they could do the show but Ivan and the ForoFIL production team managed to source some gear that would make do. There was then an exciting dilemma as the original stuff finally arrived and Dom & Andrea got it off the plane, raced back to ForoFIL and, with literally minutes to spare, delivered a few essentials. 
The concert itself was fantastic. Led by ex-Ninja Tune employee Jason Swinscoe, Cinematic Orchestra are jazz, but with subtle, quirky, contemporary, electronic differences. A bit of dub step, a lot of film vibe and some wonderful soulful vocals ('To Build A Home' being a prime example - captured on You Tube here) . They've not released an album in five years but have just finished a sold out 22-date European tour and tonight was the best attended gig of the week so far. Amazing.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Philae and Graeae

A duck-shaped comet somewhere
On Thursdays the floodgates open. Today (and tomorrow) is when school children visit FIL. Thousands and thousands of them, surging down the aisles. It was actually quite scary. We had to close the walkway a few times as the numbers got too much.
Anyway, another fun-packed day of talks, including a wonderful reading by Jeanette Winterson of her The Gap Of Time (a modern take on Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale) complete with sound effects; a panel discussion about the dangers of social media with Sunjeev Sahota (who doesn't do social media) and Jon Ronson, Owen Jones and Alexanandra Heminsley (who do); a talk on psychological thrillers, another on forensic crime...
But best of all was a wonderful science talk about the Rosetta Mission which landed the Philae probe on a comet called 67P last year. It was utterly gripping, a bit like watching Star Wars. It even had pathos, as the probe, having done its work, is now marooned on the comet, millions of miles from Earth. I don't know why this upsets me - it's just a lump of hardware - but it does. (See also Voyager post).
This evening's show was disabled theatre company, Graeae, performing Reasons To Be Cheerful - a kind of musical based on the songs of Ian Dury. They'd performed a small part of it at the London Paralympics opening ceremony. In all honesty, it was quite a challenge for the Guadalajara audience to get to grips with something so localised, set in London in 1981 and with a very London vernacular, even if it did have subtitles. But it was very professional and we wanted to make a point about social inclusion and art for all, so I'm glad we did it. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Little Boots

The halfway point. It's hard keeping track of everything, but today I went to a few talks, fought some fires and lunched with some academics at a restaurant imaginatively called La Tequila. Professors and doctors all, but we talked as much about football and music as their specialist chosen subjects.
This evening's concert was Little Boots. To be perfectly honest, Victoria Hesketh (for she is Little Boots) has passed me by until this year, but we were looking for a female artist and something a bit lighter than the other acts, and Victoria fit the bill. A bit of Kylie (and as small as), a bit of St Etienne, all wrapped up in an 80s veneer. Her latest release is a concept album, of a sort. A working girl who promotes girl-power and runs her own label. She's also duetted with Jean Michel Jarre and Phil Oakey, and plays an MS20 on stage, which kind of clinched it for me. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Welsh, Random and Frost

Day 4. More focus on the business of publishing, but also lots of academic and science talks today. It's hard to keep track of them all. Our daily press conference amusingly combined our own Elizabeth Shepherd (ELT specialist) and Irvine Welsh (sex & drugs & rock & roll specialist), but she held her own. 
The latter was later in conversation with his Mexican equivalent, Guillermo Fadanelli, who sat behind the panel wearing shades and fedora, punctuating his drawl with pauses so long you wondered whether he'd fallen asleep. It was all very rock & roll. Welsh currently lives in Chicago (summer) and Miami (winter) and before that was in Amsterdam and Dublin, but thankfully it hasn't lessened his Scottish burr.  
The evening's show was probably the most challenging of the nine: Wayne McGregor / Random Dance's FAR, but we needn't have worried. It was another very big audience and went down really well. Emily Winfield, Random's touring manager, said it was the best performance she's seen of it. Ben Frost composed the music, so we thought we'd invite him to do a solo electronica set straight afterwards (influenced by the fact that by a weird coincidence he happened to be in Mexico this week anyway). It was incredibly intense, a cross-between Jon Hopkins and Biosphere, but harsher, more brutal, and cleared half the crowd. Which still left 1,000 or so brave souls, including all the Random dancers who swayed and shimmied with me down the front. Frost is a Reykjavik-based Aussie, but does tons of work in London so what the hell...
Getting very tired